performed by the Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra under Urs Schneider on Naxos, or below by Francesco D’Avalos and the Philharmonia or this recording for better recording quality, maybe my preference
Yes, you read that right, a symphony no. 3, op 153. That’s quite high for a guy who still had eight symphonies left to write after this one, among much else.
Joachim Raff is probably one of the most famous composers you’ve never heard of, but that statement needs qualification. He was pretty solidly famous in his day, but his fame seems to have died when he did.
Joseph Joachim Raff was born on May 27, 1822 in Switzerland, his family having relocated there from Germany, apparently to avoid conscription of his father, a teacher. Young Raff himself was a schoolmaster and studied music largely on his own. He composed some pieces for piano and sent them to one Felix Mendelssohn, who sent them to Breitkopf & Härtel, who published them, getting a positive review from Robert Schumann. Things seem to be going well so far, no?
Buoyed by this success, he decided to relocate to Zürich to study full time. He had the chance to hear Franz Liszt play live in Basel, making acquaintance with Hans von Bülow, and eventually becoming an assistant to Liszt, assisting him with (apparently large portions of) orchestration of at least one of his symphonic poems, Tasso, Lamento e Trionfo. He continued to make connections, among them Clara Schumann, and appears to have been the first person to establish a music class of some kind specifically for women.
Of his compositions, Wikipedia says “Raff was very prolific, and by the end of his life was one of the best known German composers, though his work is largely forgotten today.” In total, he wrote eleven symphonies, two violin concertos, two cello concertos, and a piano concerto, among many other Konzertstücke for violin or other instruments. He wrote three operas, and has a long list of orchestral music aside from concertos or symphonies, including suites, orchestral preludes, overtures, and last but not least a large body of chamber music, including eight string quartets, four piano trios, two piano quartets, a piano quintet, a string octet, sextet and more.
That aside, his students included Edward MacDowell and Alexander Ritter, and is claimed to have influenced the young Richard Strauss, among others. I’m not entirely sure why someone who moved with such famous musical names was himself so swiftly forgotten, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he was largely overshadowed by Wagner, Bruckner and that crowd who moved forward and made a bigger splash, but I could be wrong.
Raff’s most famous work (for a time) was his fifth symphony, subtitled Leonore, and it is indeed wonderful, but I decided we could go with the other of his famous works, the third. Arturo Toscanini performed the third on a number of occasions, and Raff’s colleague von Bülow described the third’s success as “colossal.” But would it still be so today?
It’s in four movements, coming in at around 45 minutes, pretty typical for a symphony of the mid-to-late 19th century. Somewhat akin to a Mahler symphony, it’s broken into parts and movements:
- Part I
- I. Impressions and Feelings: Allegro
- Part II
- II. Dreaming: Largo
- III. Dance of the Dryads: Allegro assai
- Part III
- At Night. Stillness of the night in the forest. Entry and departure of the wild hunt, with Lady Holle and Wotan. Day-break: Allegro
Wotan? Lady Holle? German fairy tales apparently. And it sounds that way. To be honest, Raff’s symphony should present no challenges to anyone familiar with Liszt’s symphonic poems, the symphonies of Bruckner or Mahler, or anything of Wagner. That being said, it’s not ‘like them’ in the sense that it’s derivative; it just comes from a similar era.
I haven’t paid much attention to the program notes for the work, to be honest, the story that it tells, because the music itself is plenty enjoyable. The first movement begins pastorally, as should a symphony titled “im Walde”, with horns and violins calling and answering, then cellos and basses, as if the forest is awaking at dawn. It’s a movement of quite bucolic jollity: the woodwinds sound like forest creatures, scurrying ground fauna or chirping birds; there’s the regular horn calls that mark important points of the first movement, as if calling both audience and orchestra to attention. It sounds like the forest, like mountains, fresh air, greenery, the rustling of leaves, and there’s something generally magical about it. Imagine the opening of Mahler’s first balanced with a Liszt-like symphonic poem atmosphere in a slightly more Beethovenesque attire. Raff’s writing is pleasant, lyrical, fresh, and engaging. There aren’t any moments of tragedy or storm, but some tension does build in the first movement, which some listeners might perhaps perceive as the slightest bit uneventful, but it’s darn purdy.
The second movement leads with a clarinet solo and a horn. It’s very slow, but shows us some really stunning string writing after our solos are done. It sounds broad, spacious, Brucknerian, rich, pastoral, and Liszt comes to mind, too. The movement is built primarily around the horn and clarinet, backed by the incredible strings until the rest of the ensemble joins in: flute, oboe, etc. Strings take over in a con moto section. There are glimpses of something almost Tchaikovskian going on, but overall, this movement is a big, deep, invigorating, relaxing breath of fresh air.
The third movement is by far the most magical, captivating thing to appear yet. By far the shortest movement of the symphony at under five minutes, the scherzo is brimming with life, a rippling kind of excitement and energy that’s almost The Sorcerer’s Apprentice mischievous, bouncy and spirited, featuring the low, bottly sound of flute in its lower register at times. The trio is mostly flute, but the return of the scherzo seems very climactic, with a ritardando and some breath-holding before the movement ends quietly.
I wish J. Raff had given us a bit more of this more bold-faced excitement in the early two movements of the symphony. Don’t get me wrong; I really enjoy this work, but while the first two movements are surprisingly pleasant, the latter two are stunningly mesmerizing. The little short scherzo has nothing on the finale, though. The opening bars give me flashes of Beethoven 9, and we’re introduced to a heroic, triumphant, sticky theme.
When I say sticky, I mean it has something that burns itself into your brain as with a branding iron, something so identifiable, so melodic or individual, that it alone can carry the weight of an entire movement, or symphony, or opera, and I feel we have that in this movement. We know it the instant it appears. As this movement progresses, we find it to be an unmistakable finale. It is as if war has broken loose, or a side door to hell got blown open by the wind. Things really build up and get blustery, there’s finally some frightening weight behind the symphony and it carries on, head high, with its fanfare and trumpetry, and we can see that whether the postponement of such intensity was intentional or not, Raff has the ability to really turn it on when he wants to, and I’d say for anyone doubting the man’s talents, maybe have a listen to the finale first.
What a work this is. I’ll say, it doesn’t grab you by the rib cage and rattle you until your heart falls out like, say, Mahler, leaving you battered and beaten and bruised but emotionally moved by the end of something like the sixth or ninth, and nor is it even the colossal (and by now cliché) ‘cathedral’ of a Bruckner symphony. I will say that despite the obvious Germanness (I know, he was Swiss by birth), I hear Lots of Liszt in this work, and maybe that changes in the later symphonies. That being said, I can’t help but also notice flashes of some of the most famous European (i.e. German or Austrian) composers in this work, both those who came before and after Raff. Schumann? Strauss? Bruckner?
Also, while I haven’t touched on it at all, there’s something inherently programmatic-sounding about this work, as if one can hear its story even if you don’t know what it is. I didn’t detect any cyclical elements to the work, but that certainly doesn’t mean they’re not there. It has a voice, not only of the composer, but of the story, a plot, but I haven’t touched on that because I believe the music is plenty enjoyable enough. Go find the program, its story, and maybe you’ll enjoy it even more.
What I will say is that for a man who wrote as much as he did, and for as much success as he had in his lifetime, he certainly demands a greater deal of attention than he has nowadays. Yes, I know, far more famous (and perhaps deservedly more famous) composers don’t get their 15 minutes of fame in the concert hall (anything of Dvorak’s besides the ninth, anyone?), so in saying that Raff demands a greater deal of attention, I am not saying he’s the next Bruckner or Mahler; I don’t think he is. But in this day and age of iTunes and YouTube and Spotify and Naxos and Hyperion and whatever other label you want to purchase or stream or borrow from, spending an hour of your life, or even a few bucks, enjoying a surprisingly pleasant symphony that many have never even heard of, much less listened to, is a far better way than drowning in whatever’s been on the news in the past few days. Go give Raff a listen, and stay tuned for more new music on the blog for the rest of this month.